Some Things Never Change: Many Minor League Operators Are Suspicious Of MLB's Intent
Fear and trepidation abound in the minor leagues in the aftermath of MLB’s takeover of the minors before the 2021 season.
In addition to 42 teams being dropped from affiliated baseball, the new Professional Development Licenses required significant upgrades to minor league facilities. And there remains a fear that MLB will further downsize the minors when the current agreement expires in 2030.
In many ways, the minor leagues have been here before.
The 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement led to the most significant changes in facility standards in decades. The changes were significant enough that many teams were faced with either building new ballparks to meet the standards or losing their affiliations.
There were worries that this would lead to the loss of baseball in many cities. That proved somewhat true in that a number of cities lost affiliated minor league baseball. That also spurred the rise of the independent leagues, because many of the cities abandoned by the minor leagues became cities where indy ball made its debut.
There were concerns that the facility requirements in the 1990 PBA were too onerous, just like there are now.
There were concerns that there wasn’t enough time to make the changes. That concern turned out to be founded. The PBA of 1990 required significant facility upgrades, all of which had to be completed by April 1, 1994. But in 1993, MLB agreed to postpone the requirements until April 1, 1995.
And there were even concerns that the 1990 PBA was the forerunner of bigger changes to the minors on the horizon.
Many of the issues minor league teams faced at the time are similar to the ones they face now.
There were differences as well. While Player Development Contracts between MLB organizations and their affiliates were viewed by many in the minors as virtually permanent in the years before the 2020 PBA negotiations, there was no such feeling in the early 1990s.
In the 1980s, it was common for Class A and lower teams to have an affiliation agreement one year and lose it the next, with no MLB affiliate coming along to replace it.
The 1990 PBA was the first one to guarantee Class A teams of an ongoing PDC. At the time, there were concerns, especially at the short-season level, that some levels of the minors could get lopped off in the future.
“There are rumors that people in the major leagues want to do away with certain levels of the minor leagues. Not the minor leagues as a whole, but certain levels,” said Larry Schmittou in a Baseball America story from 1995. Schmittou was an owner of multiple minor league teams and was on the joint PBA committee.
So that led to concerns that cities and teams may spend to upgrade their stadium to meet the new requirements, but then lose their teams anyway in an upcoming PBA negotiation.
“You can’t ask people to spend $1 million and then say, ‘There’s no PDCs for you,’ ” Midwest League president George Spelius said at the time. “I hope baseball doesn’t do that.”
There is one key difference between the current PDL standards and the PBA agreement of 1990. Back then, BA described the resentment some minor league operators felt when MLB proposed regulations on how many vendors they must have and standards for cleanliness of concession and souvenir stands.
The standards as adopted for new construction back then still had plenty of requirements focused on the fan experience. Required seating standards were set by level.
Class A 4,000
Each stadium was required to have at least two distinct grades of seating and no more than 90% of total seating could be general admission.
The facility requirements also required 1,000 square feet of home clubhouse space for any new stadium and 750 square feet in the visitor’s clubhouse.
These requirements and others were the last significant list of facility demands adopted as part of a PBA agreement until the introduction of PDLs in 2021. The PDLs represent the first significant rewrite of facility standards for the minor leagues since the 1990 PBA.
Even now, some of the facility standards have remained intact. Home clubhouses still need to have 1,000 square feet. But now the visitor’s clubhouses also require that much space.
But the new PDL approaches facility requirements entirely differently than the 1990 PBA. Everything in the new PDL’s facility requirements is focused on players and player development. This time, MLB has come to the realization that minor league operators are going to naturally focus on the fan experience.
That leaves MLB free to focus on the needs of minor league players and field staff.
BY THE NUMBERS
The percentage of current full-season minor league parks opened in 1992 or later, indicating they were planned and constructed after the 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement dramatically upgraded minor league facility standards.
By comparison, 20 of 30 major league parks debuted after Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 and sparked an MLB building boom.